Sunday, February 24, 2013

Another Look Back on a Lazy Sunday

As I'd mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I'm dedicating most of my writing time to the prospect countdown right now. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and this year will be by far my longest and most detailed countdown yet. I'm really excited about it, and really hope you all enjoy it when it does come out. In addition to the prospect countdown, I'm of course planning my annual pilgrimage down to Goodyear that's coming up in a few weeks. I have a couple of interviews lined up that I'm really excited about, one in particular that I think you will really enjoy. With that said, in lieu of the more traditional Lazy Sunday, I'm going to again provide a look back at a player from the Indians past, another guy who has had his number retired by the club. Although Mel Harder never won a World Series title and hasn't been inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame, he's a guy who played his entire career in Cleveland, and stuck around the area even after he retired until he passed away several years ago. If you're starved for my thoughts on the Indians first two exhibition games (2-0 baby!), make sure you're following me on twitter, and feel free to ask anything on there anytime.

At number 18, we have another digit that’s been retired by the Cleveland Indians. Starting pitcher Mel Harder wore #18 for (coincidentally) 18 of his 20 seasons with the Indians, having worn #49 for his first season+ with the Tribe. Harder pitched for the Indians from 1928 through 1947, and in his 20 years with the Tribe he never participated in a postseason contest. He broke in with the club after the 1920 World Series victory, and left just one season before the Indians were next world champs in 1948. Along the way, Harder would win 223 games and post a 3.80 ERA in 3426 1/3 career innings pitched, appear in four consecutive all-star games from 1934-1937 and become a Cleveland sports legend. The 20 seasons with the club make Harder the longest-tenured Cleveland Indian in history, and even after he retired as a player Harder remained with the organization as pitching coach. After a one-season stint as their 1B coach, Harder served as the Indians pitching coach from 1949-1963, so if you’re doing the math along with me you’ll see that Harder was a part of the Indians organization for a quarter of a century.

Melvin Leroy “Chief” Harder was born on October 15, 1909 in Beemer, Nebraska. He signed with the Indians straight of his Omaha high school, and made his big league debut as an 18 year old on April 24, 1928. Harder threw 3 2/3 innings of hitless relief, walking one and striking out a pair in a 6-2 road loss to the St. Louis Browns. A few weeks later, Harder was appearing in his third game as a professional against the Philadelphia Athletics and threw the pitch that ended up being Ty Cobb’s last career home run. Harder’s rookie season was somewhat rocky, as he was tagged with a 6.61 ERA in 49 IP, mostly out of the bullpen. He made just one start in his 23 appearances that season, and spent most of the 1929 season in the minor leagues. But Harder would be called up to the Indians in 1930, and he’d remain in the big leagues for the rest of his long and distinguished career. One of Harder’s more memorable feats was serving as the bookend for Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Harder started the first game in the stadium, dropping a close 1-0 decision to Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics on July 31, 1932. Harder was the hard-luck loser, throwing 8 innings and allowing just one run on 5 hits while walking 2 and striking out 7. There were 80,142 fans in attendance that day on the shores of Lake Erie, setting a new record for attendance at a professional baseball game. Harder would then throw the last pitch in Municipal Stadium history after the final game in 1993, a game I was lucky enough to attend along with my dad.

The one blight on an otherwise superlative career for Harder came during the 1940 season, when Harder was a veteran team leader under manager Ossie Vitt. Vitt was a tough manager, hard on and demanding of his players. He would frequently lambast them to the assembled members of the media, and was even hard on superstar Bob Feller. Feller pitched the only opening day no-hitter in baseball history that season, and was in the midst of a season in which he would lead the league in strikeouts, ERA, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, WHIP and make the all-star team. Oh, and he was 21 years old at the time. Still, this wasn’t enough for Vitt, who was heard remarking on how he couldn’t be expected to win a pennant with Feller as his ace. After he yanked Harder off the mound and publicly told him to start pitching better to earn his salary, the veterans on the team had enough. Led by their spokesman Harder, eleven players went into to Indians owner Alva Bradley’s office in mid-June to tell Bradley that the Indians had the talent to win the AL pennant that year, but not with Vitt as their manager. They were sick of his attitude, sick of his arrogance, and sick of being run down to members of the press. Bradley said he would consider their concerns and asked that they not be made public, but word of the meeting leaked to the press.

Fans and media lambasted the Indians players, suggesting that they simply weren’t tough enough to play under a real manager like Vitt. They were nicknamed the “Cleveland Crybabies,” and taunted around the league. The Indians were battling the Tigers for the pennant that year, and there were some particularly ugly incidents in (surprise!) Detroit when the Indians traveled northwest to play the Tigers. Detroit fans threw tomatoes at the Indians when their train arrived in Detroit, and then the future Nobel Laureates went on to throw baby food, bottles and rubber nipples onto the field and at the players during the games. Bradley felt that he couldn’t fire Vitt during the season after news of the meeting leaked, as he’d be seen as weak and kowtowing to his employees, so Vitt held on. The Indians still managed to go 61-44 the rest of the season, but Feller lost a crucial start to the Tigers (despite allowing just 3 hits) in Cleveland on the last weekend of the season, and the Tigers ended up winning the pennant by one game ahead of the 89-65 Indians. The performance was more in spite of Vitt than because of him, and some players later reported that they came up with their own set of signals to use in games, bypassing the unpopular manager on the field. Vitt was fired after that season, and never managed again. Harder went out on a limb to defend himself and his teammates, and he paid for it with the subsequent media backlash. But he did what he felt was right, and was ultimately vindicated when Vitt wasn’t retained at the end of the season. An interesting tidbit on the field from that 1940 season; Joe DiMaggio struck out just 30 times in 508 at bats in 1940. Three of those  strikeouts came against Harder in a single game. DiMaggio hit just .180 off of Harder in his career.

On the field, Harder’s signature pitch was his curveball. He was said to have one of the best curveballs in baseball, and between that and his sinking fastball he was able to pitch to contact and get hitters to beat the ball into the ground. He wasn’t a big strikeout guy, recording “just” 1161 in 3426 1/3 career IP. Harder suffered a shoulder injury in the middle of the 1936 season, and it took some of the zip off of his fastball for the rest of his career. Still, between his curveball and elite control, he was able to be an effective pitcher for 10+ seasons after that.

From 1934-1937 Harder was named to four-straight American League All-Star teams. He pitched 13 innings in those midsummer classics, and didn’t allow a single run. In fact, he still has the record for most innings pitched in all-star games without allowing any runs. Harder was the winning pitcher for the AL in the 1934 game in the Polo Grounds, throwing 5 shutout innings back when players actually, you know, tried hard in all-star games. The next year, the game was held at cavernous Municipal Stadium and Harder relieved starter Lefty Gomez to throw three innings of shutout relief in a 4-1 AL victory. After two more scoreless innings in 1936, Harder earned the save in the 1937 game, throwing the final three innings of an 8-3 AL victory.

The best stretch of Harder’s 20-year career was from 1932-1935, when the righty went a combined 72-53 with a 3.15 ERA. He struck out 357 and walked 269 in 1050 1/3 innings over that four-year period with a 1.29 WHIP. That adds up to an ERA+ of 145 over that timeframe, an impressive number to say the least. He started 127 games, and out of those 127 starts he completed 65 games. Of those 65 complete games, 13 were shutouts. In a feat that never would be duplicated in today’s game, Harder also made 41 relief appearances in that four-year period, recording 10 saves back when no one really cared about saves. It was an impressive run, one where Harder was as good as pretty much any pitcher in the American League.
After Harder retired, he went on to a long career as a coach. He served as the Indians 1B coach for the 1948 season, giving him a front-row seat to the Indians last World Series championship. He became the pitching coach after that, and served as the mentor to some of the best pitching staffs in team history, if not league history. The 1954 Indians starting rotation boasted three 19-game winners, and that’s not even including Bob Feller’s 13-3 mark that season. Pitching prodigy Herb Score, who led the AL in strikeouts his first two seasons, credits Harder with improving his curveball. When Harder left the Indians coaching staff after the 1963 season, he was replaced by one of the pitchers he used to coach, Early Wynn. When asked about the man he was replacing, Wynn remarked that “Mel Harder made me into a pitcher.”

Harder moved to Arizona after he retired from coaching, but he just couldn’t get enough of  the Cleveland area. He moved to Chardon in 1983, where he would eventually pass away in 2002. But before he passed away, Mel Harder made a movie…a movie that my youngest brother also happened to appear in. It sounds crazy, but in 1994 my youngest brother (who was 10 at the time) had a friend whose dad worked for Fox 8. His dad wanted to make a short movie called “Mel,” about an old former player who befriended some local kids to talk to them about baseball. Mel passed away in the movie, and my little brother played the pitcher who had Mel’s spirit, which he revealed to the other kids by throwing a baseball through the backstop at a local ball diamond. It sounds kind of weird when I think about it now, and I really do have to find a copy of the movie the next time I’m home at my parent’s house. I’ll also have to track down a VCR, which might be a more difficult than digging up the movie itself. Anyway, whether the movie ended up being good or not, I have an autographed Mel Harder baseball on my shelf to show for it, so the whole thing worked out pretty well for me. Harder is one of the all-time Indians greats, and the longest tenured player in history. Any way you look at it, he's a legend not just in Indians history, but in all of Cleveland athletics. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lazy Sunday Feeling Bourn Again

So…any significant news coming out of the Indians lately? Other than pitchers and catchers reporting, signing the 2nd major free agent in the same offseason and inking one of the best pitchers in the history of Japanese baseball to a minor league contract? This has been the busiest and most newsworthy week or so in any offseason I can remember, and for once all of the news coming out of Cleveland is good news. Everyone was excited enough at the prospect of spring training getting started, as the Indians had several new additions to the club that fans were going to finally get a look at in Wahoo red, white and blue. Then Chris Antonetti and company went out and did something totally unexpected, inking speedster Michael Bourn to bat leadoff and patrol CF, sliding fellow offseason acquisition Drew Stubbs over to RF. It was a move that had been rumored for a couple of weeks, but I don’t think anyone really expected it to happen. I certainly did not. I was happy with the moves the Tribe had already made in the offseason, and was thrilled to see spring training finally getting underway in earnest. But while pitchers were popping fastballs into catcher’s mitts all across the desert, the Indians front office remained busy at work getting manager Terry Francona one last(?) piece to help with sorting out the lineup puzzle. So with an eye towards Goodyear, we’re off on another exciting Lazy Sunday in February…

Even after the Indians signed Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher, the club still had a gaping hole remaining at the designated hitter slot. There was talk about bringing back Travis Hafner at a deeply discounted rate from what he would have received if the Indians had picked up his 2013 option, but Hafner signed with the Yankees and is currently salivating over the short RF porch in Yankee Stadium. Some speculated that the Indians would look to another hero from times past and bring back Jim Thome, but that was never really an option. I even saw one site speculate that the Indians could be interested in bringing back Manny Ramirez, but that line of “thinking” was never rooted in any sort of reality. Conventional wisdom led most to assume that Francona would use the DH as a rotating day off for his various position players, a couple of which (namely Kipnis and Asdrubal) seemed to tire and tail off towards the end of last season. Supersub Mike Aviles’ presence on the 25-man roster would have made that scenario easy to work out, as Aviles can play 2B/3B/SS and even LF to give pretty much anyone in the lineup a day off. But rather than leave the DH to such a rotation, Antonetti went out and signed Bourn. Bourn was negotiating with the New York Mets, and the Mets were attempting to get major league baseball to soften on the draft pick compensation rule that would have seen the Mets lose their 1st round pick to the cross-town Yankees if they’d signed Bourn. The deal stalled while the Mets petitioned the Commissioner’s Office, and the Indians swooped in with a contract that guarantees him at least $48 million over the next four years. If Bourn accumulates 550 plate appearances in 2016 (and passes a physical following the season), then a $12 million option kicks in to make the final total of the deal a whopping $60 million over five seasons. Add that to the $56 million that the Indians guaranteed Swisher (with a vesting option that could push it to $70 million), and a quick math tally shows us that the Indians have committed as much as $130 million to two players in a single offseason, albeit two of the top-10 free agents available this winter. That is completely unprecedented in the history of the franchise.

Bourn is one of the fastest players in major league baseball, and that speed helps him to be an elite defender in CF. He’s a two-time all-star and has a pair of Gold Gloves sitting on his mantle, and the defensive metrics rank him as the top CF in all of baseball. By’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) measurements, his glove alone was worth three wins last season in Atlanta. He’ll patrol CF as part of the fastest outfield in baseball, flanked by two other guys who played CF last season in Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs. Stubbs and his cannon arm will slide over to RF while Brantley and his…less than cannon arm will be running down balls in LF. The grass at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario really will be the place fly balls go to die this summer, provided the front office doesn’t move one of the former CF for pitching depth. And we haven’t even talked about Bourn’s impact with the bat or on the bases yet; he hit a solid .274/.348/.391 with 9 HR and 57 RBI last season, while stealing 42 bases with Atlanta. He’s swiped at least 41 bags in every season since becoming a full-time player in 2008. Every time Bourn gets on base, he’s a real threat to turn a single into a triple like no player we’ve seen in Cleveland since…dare I say it…Kenny Lofton. The Indians as a team stole 110 bases last season. Bourn and Stubbs (30 SB last year, 40 in 2011) have the potential to do that between the two of them in 2013. Bourn’s presence will also let Terry Francona rest Drew Stubbs against lefthanded pitching, as he’s put up some pretty ugly splits against southpaws throughout his career. Lineup flexibility is always a good thing, and we’re not talking about Garko to the OF type of flexibility here.

One of the reasons that the Indians were able to sign Bourn is the new rules regarding draft pick compensation. In case you need a refresher on the new CBA that was agreed upon last season, teams losing free agents are subject to draft pick compensation from signing franchises if the free agent has been offered a one-year tender of $13.3 million by his original club. That dollar amount will vary from season to season, but for this offseason it was set at $13.3 million. Both Swisher and Bourn were tendered that offer by the Yankees and Braves, respectively. “Fortunately” for the Indians, they finished with one of the 10 worst records in baseball last year, and the top-10 picks in the draft are protected. So instead of losing their first and second round picks, the Indians only had to forfeit their 2nd round pick and the pick they were awarded in the new competitive balance lottery, a sandwich pick between the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. There’s a good chance that Bourn would have signed prior to mid-February if the signing team wouldn’t have been forced to give up their 1st round pick as compensation, so the Indians really lucked out under the new rules. In fact, the Indians can actually thank superagent Scott Boras, because if his client Mark Appel had signed with the Pirates last season, then the Mets would have had the 10th (and protected) pick in the draft and likely would have signed Bourn. Some are hailing this as proof that the new CBA works; I think it was just a lucky break for this season. The new CBA doesn’t protect small markets as much as it rewards incompetence. The Red Sox have the 7th pick in the draft, which of course is also a protected pick this year. If the small-market Pirates had signed a marquee free agent, they’d have been penalized by losing their first round pick, #14 overall. The only way the CBA is structured to protect small markets is if you assume that small market teams have no chances to compete and will consistently finish among the bottom 10 teams in baseball year in and year out.

The Indians benefited from the system this time around, but that hardly means that the system works the way it should. Small market teams are still penalized by the hard slotting system in both the draft and the international market, something the Indians are going to have to deal with much more this year than last year because when the club lost their 2nd and competitive balance sandwich pick, they also lost the corresponding money that went along with the picks. So going way overslot on their 1st rounder and way underslot on their 2nd rounder is no longer an option. I hate to include a CBA rant in every one of my articles, but the system just makes so little sense overall that I’m constantly finding new issues with the rules. Such is life though, and credit the Indians front office with seizing on the opportunity to exploit a loophole in the system this year and going all-out. It’s clear that Antonetti and company intend to pick outside of the top-10 next year, and are using their free agent capital this season while that invaluable first round pick is protected. Small market success is about identifying and exploiting inefficiencies, and kudos to the Indians front office for doing just that this offseason.

So with all that said, I do have a couple of minor concerns with the Bourn signing. One, he’s a player who’s value is tied almost entirely to his legs. He’s been a very, very good player due to his legs, but if his speed goes, so does his value. As we’ve discussed, Bourn offers slightly better than league average production at the plate. He strikes out too much and doesn’t walk as much as you’d like from your leadoff hitter. His primary value to the team is in the field and on the basepaths, and if he suffers an injury that saps him of his speed, that’s a huge problem. Back when everyone’s favorite political forecaster Nate Silver was still just a baseball numbers guy, he wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus that illustrated the steep decline that MLB CF undergo around age 32. Bourn will play the 2013 season as a 30 year old. I’m not saying that I expect a dramatic drop-off in production for Bourn after the 2014 season, but the situation bears monitoring. It’s not like Bourn can just slide over to LF and let his bat carry him if he loses a step.

My second concern is that while Bourn is an overall upgrade to the roster (of course), his presence in CF actually lowers the value of all of the players that he’s displacing. Drew Stubbs slides over to RF, where his bat will be slightly less valuable that in CF. Nick Swisher moves to 1B, where his bat will be a little less valuable than in RF. Mark Reynolds moves to DH, where…well, you get the idea. So while Bourn could be worth as many as six wins over a replacement player based on his recent performance, the player he’s replacing is an above-average defender himself, so the upgrade won’t be as dramatic as if he were replacing, say, Johnny Damon in CF. But the overall team defense is definitely upgraded by the move, and it really is going to be fun watching the highlight-level plays day in and day out in the Indians outfield this summer.

All in all, those two concerns are outweighed by the positive aspects of the deal, summed up best (as usual) by the fantastic Jonah Keri over at Grantland. Bourn makes the Indians a better team, of that there can be no doubt. He gives manager Terry Francona more options with the outfield and with the DH position. The dollars in the contract, while significant, are actually extremely reasonable in today’s market; Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher all got more money than Bourn, and it’s entirely possible that Bourn outperforms all of them next year (if Hamilton gets hurt again, that is). Even Torii Hunter got a higher annual value than Bourn when he signed a 2-year, $26 million deal with the Tigers. Shane Victorio, coming off of a .704 OPS, got $39 million for three years! Bourn was looking for a deal in the 5-year, $100 million range earlier this offseason, and the Braves actually moved on to sign B.J. Upton because they thought Bourn would be too expensive. So the deal is an excellent value, particularly with the huge influx of MLB TV revenue that will be flowing into teams’ coffers in the near future. Salaries are poised to explode in the coming seasons, so obtaining an asset of Bourn’s talent for a reasonable cost can be seen as a good investment in talent if nothing else. If Bourn helps headline a new “window of contention” sometime in the next one to five years, then great! Mission accomplished. If not, Antonetti has a reasonably-priced asset that he can flip for younger parts. The signing makes all the sense in the world from both a talent and financial perspective, and if the Indians have acquired their mid-2010’s version of mid-1990’s Kenny Lofton, so much the better. Oh, and the Indians reportedly sold as many season tickets this past Tuesday night as they did in a month last offseason, another added benefit to creating a little buzz in the cold winter months.

Bourn was not the only free agent the Indians brought into the fold this past week, as there were a couple of interesting minor league deals (with accompanying invites to MLB camp in the spring, of course). Jason Giambi, now 42 and fresh off an interview for the Colorado manager’s seat, will compete this spring to be a pinch-hitter and lefthanded DH when the club breaks camp to head North and start the regular season. His career OBP is still a remarkable .403, and Giambi actually had a pretty good season for Colorado in 2011. He hit 13 HR and put up a .260/.335/.603(!) line in 131 at-bats, most of them as a pinch hitter. He hit just one HR in 89 AB last season, and can only be considered a long shot to make the Indians opening day roster. Still, prior to the Bourn signing, that did not stop the twitter GM’s from lamenting the cheapness of the Dolans and the clear bout of insanity that Chris Antonetti was suffering in thinking that Giambi was anything but washed up. People who get worked up and bent out of shape over minor league non-roster invitees (NRI’s) never cease to amaze me, but those fans were quickly quelled by the Bourn signing and we (mercifully) only had to put up with them for a day or so.

The second NRI is a little more intriguing and has a better shot to break camp with the team, as Daisuke Matsuzaka directly addresses the Indians biggest weakness; their starting pitching. Matsuzaka battled injuries and ineffectiveness last season when he went 1-7 with a (hide the women and children) 8.28 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 11 starts for the Red Sox. It was his first season back on the mound after undergoing Tommy John surgery, so some rust is completely understandable. But he’s now four seasons removed from his outstanding 2008 campaign that saw him go 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA for the Sox, and he’s really never been close to that level of success since. That 2008 season is looking more and more like a BABIP fluke than anything else as the years go by. In 2008, Matsuzaka’s BABIP against was just .260, a full 76 points below his career average of .336. BABIP usually regresses to the mean, and when a guy who is always among the league leaders in walks suddenly stops getting lucky, bad things tend to happen. Maybe 2008 was the last season he was really healthy, or maybe it was the last season he was really lucky. Either way, it’s more than worth a NRI to find out, and Matsuzaka will make just $1.5 million if he makes the 25-man roster out of spring training.

In his first interviews with the Cleveland media after signing, he said that there were two factors that brought him to Cleveland. One, he would get to pitch for manager Terry Francona again. Two, he would be in the American League and get to face his former team, the Boston Red Sox. A healthy, happy and motivated Matsuzaka might just surprise some people this season, and if so Antonetti will look like a genius. If not, it costs absolutely nothing. While the dramatic upgrades in the lineup are nice and were badly-needed, the Indians still have serious issues with their starting pitching. The starting rotation is currently occupied by five “ifs.” IF Masterson can get back to his 2011 form, IF Ubaldo isn’t the complete disaster he was in 2012, IF Brett Myers can return to a starting role, IF Carlos Carrasco comes back healthy and IF Trevor Bauer has learned from his struggles in 2012, then the Indians might have a decent rotation. That’s a lot of “ifs,” and adding Matsuzaka to compete for a spot certainly isn’t going to hurt anything. Anthony Castrovice came up with the most creative (and accurate) analogy for the Indians starting rotation that I’ve seen so far; highway rest stop fast food. In Castro’s words, “You know they’re not likely to blow away your expectations, but you do need them, they do serve a purpose, and you just hold out hope they don’t leave you violently ill.” Well put, Anthony, well put.

Speaking of Trevor Bauer, his former catcher with the Diamondbacks, Miguel Montero, continues to work as hard as possible to shove his entire cleat down his own throat. Montero again this week felt the need to run down Bauer to the media at the Diamondbacks fan fest, saying that the 22-year old “never wanted to listen” to him, among other things. I’ve made my feelings on the Bauer-Montero relationship pretty clear, and I see no reason to change those now.  I still think Montero is coming across as the bad guy in this relationship, and I really can’t believe that Arizona sportswriters don’t have anything more interesting to ask the team about than a player who was traded away two months ago. Maybe they’re trying to justify what was seen as a poor trade by their team’s GM in dealing a top pitching prospect for a great defensive shortstop who has struggled to hit in the minor leagues. Maybe they’re just not that creative, or maybe Montero keeps bringing it up and the quotes make for good copy and are still driving page clicks. Whatever the reason, the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away, and that’s really no fault of Bauer’s at this point. Bauer was contrite and apologetic after the season, calling his teammates and coaches in an attempt to smooth over perceived slights and identify just what it was about him that seemed to rub everyone the wrong way. But his former teammates just can’t seem to let it go, for whatever reason. The more Miguel Montero talks, the better Trevor Bauer sounds. 

Tucked away in that article from is a quote from Montero that might be the real reason behind the tension between the players. Montero talks about spring training last year, and says, “since day one in Spring Training I caught him and he killed me because he threw about 100 pitches in the first day.” Seems innocuous enough, but I’m about to share with you a secret known to catchers everywhere; we HATE catching bullpens. We really hate catching bullpens in unseasonably hot weather. And we really hate catching bullpens in hot weather in the preseason when our legs aren’t in shape yet. The first bullpen of the spring is supposed to be like syllabus day. You show up, get to know each other, throw 30 or so pitches and hit the showers. Montero prepared for syllabus day, and Professor Bauer came with a full day’s lecture ready to go. That started the relationship off on the wrong foot, and it just deteriorated from there. To his credit, Bauer has remained extremely professional with respect to his issues in Arizona. Asked about the Montero comments on twitter, Bauer responded “Great thing about the United States. We have the freedom to say whatever we want. Thanks to all the men who fight for that.” Despite many members of the media irresponsibly assuming that one of Bauer’s rap songs that was recorded in December was a response to Montero’s February comments, he’s kept everything above board with respect to his former catcher. Just my additional $.02 on the matter, and I’m really looking forward to Spring Training this year when I can ask Trevor Bauer about it.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring attention to the Indians recently-released promotional schedule for 2013, which includes some really neat events and giveaways. I’m the proud owner of a gray Justin Masterson jersey that was a giveaway last season, and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the shirt. This season, the Indians have several similar jersey giveaways, including a Jason Kipnis jersey (June 15), 1902 replica jersey (July 13), Michael Brantley (July 27) and Nick Swisher (August 24) as well as several caps. There’s the usual assortment of Dollar Dog games (3 in Sept alone!) and fireworks displays. If you’ve never stuck around for one of the Indians fireworks display, I highly recommend it as they are extremely impressive. As expected, the Indians are going to tug at the heartstrings of the fans out there who still long for the glory days of the mid-1990’s with a couple of bobblehead giveaways, Albert Belle (June 1) and Omar Vizquel (July 8). Reportedly, the Albert Belle bobblehead will feature a likeness of the slugger from that magical night in September of 1995 when the Indians were on their way to sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the divisional round of the playoffs. As we all remember, Sox manager Kevin Kennedy asked the umpires to check Belle’s bat, thinking it may be corked. Belle stood in the dugout and pointed to his bicep, informing Kennedy that the “cork” he was looking for was right there. It’s an iconic image of a time when the Indians were near the top of the baseball world, and it’s something that will surely have Tribe fans lining up before the gates even open to ensure that they’re one of the first 10,000 fans who will receive the collectable. The promotional schedule is neat, but here’s hoping that in 2013 fans will be drawn to the stadium more for the winning baseball played inside of it rather than the trinkets given away at the gate. With that said, here’s looking to position battles and guys showing up in the best shape of their lives as spring training gets underway and we all look forward to real baseball a little more than we did at this time last week…

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Quick Look Back on a Lazy Sunday

I know the posts have been few and far between here in the new year, but I promise there's a good reason why. My head has been buried in my annual top prospect countdown, and nearly every writing minute I have of late has been devoted to that. There also hasn't exactly been much news worth breaking down (unless you count "the equipment truck is leaving for Goodyear!" as news). So while I know you're not getting the regular Lazy Sunday that you're accustomed to, just wait until March. I'm going to countdown the top 60 prospects in the Indians organization for you, five at a time, over twelve straight action-packed days. I'm targeting March 3 for the first installment, so thanks for bearing with me until then. Additionally, expect to see at least a quick article every day I'm in Goodyear (March 21-26), including a couple of scheduled interviews that I am really, really excited for. Come March, the DiaTribe will be flowing fast and furious, so thanks for hanging with me until then. I'm not saying there won't be a legit Lazy Sunday between now and then or anything like that, just saying there won't be one every week like there will be during the regular season. If you need your Indians fix, hit me up on Twitter and I'll be happy to answer any questions or anything on there. In the meantime...

For those of you who don't know, my Indians stuff runs on The Cleveland Fan in addition to here on the DT, and my archive of minor league stuff is on there as well. Over on TCF, we decided it would be fun to countdown the top Cleveland athletes to wear each jersey number. I got a little out of the box with my first piece on Kyrie Irving, as while I'm a Cavs fan I know a lot more about the Indians and Browns than the city's hoops team. But the second number I drew was #6, and that was much more in my wheelhouse as one of the greatest players in Indians history wore that digit for his two best seasons in Cleveland. So for your reading pleasure here on a chilly Lazy Sunday, here's my article on Colavito in case you haven't seen it yet.

In 1950, the Indians signed an 18-year old outfielder from the Bronx to a free agent contract. He had dropped out of school as a 16-year old to pursue his professional baseball career, a decision that Rocco Domenico Colavito Jr. would never regret. Colavito grew up a Yankee fan, but his honetown team showed very little interest in the hitting prodigy, so the Indians were able to sign him before his high school class even graduated. Colavito debuted with the Indians for a brief nine-AB audition in 1955 before coming up for good in 1956. In the same summer that Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown, Colavito tied for 2nd in AL Rookie of the Year voting after a season in which he hit .276/.372/.531 with 22 HR, 65 RBI and more walks (49) than strikeouts (46). With whom did Colavito tie in the vote that year? None other than Baltimore’s Tito Francona, of course. How Colavito and his .903 OPS (and 2.3 WAR) lost out to Chicago’s Luis Aparacio’s .653 OPS (and 1.3 WAR) is beyond me, but that’s neither here nor there. Rookie of the Year or not, a Cleveland legend was born.

Colavito wore #38 in both his rookie and sophomore campaigns, and put together two solid seasons on the North Shore. He slugged 46 HR, drove in 149 runs and posted a .845 OPS back before anyone knew what OPS was. Not bad numbers, but not exactly MVP-worthy either. Prior to the 1958 season, Colavito transitioned to jersey #6. Wearing the new digit, Colavito dominated American League pitching to the tune of a .303/.405/.620 line as a 24-year old in 1958, adding 41 HR, 26 2B and 113 RBI. The 41 HR were just one behind AL leader Mickey Mantle, and helped earn Colavito a 3rd place finish in AL MVP voting that year. When he followed that up by leading the league with 42 HR in 1959, it looked like the Indians would have one of the game’s superstars on their payroll for years to come. Colavito was young, good looking, power hitting and had a cannon for an arm. He was a fan favorite, and by all accounts loved playing in Cleveland. His fantastic 1959 season included a 4-HR game in Baltimore against the Orioles, helping push him to the national spotlight and turning him into a household name among baseball fans around the country. He was the first player in club history to have two 40+ HR seasons, and his .620 SLG in 1958 stood as a team record until 1994.

All that came crashing down when, prior to the 1960 season in a move that still reverberates in Cleveland history, Indians GM Frank “Trader” Lane dealt the popular slugger to the Detroit Tigers. The move occurred on April 17, just days before Opening Day, and if Twitter were around in 1960 you could bet that the Internet would have melted down in Cleveland that day. In fact, if the Internet existed during at all during Frank Lane’s career, he may have crashed it more than once. Lane made more than 400 trades during his various stints as a GM, including the 1960 trade that sent manager Joe Gordon to Detroit in exchange for Tigers manager Jimmy Dykes. Lane even attempted to trade Stan Musial during the 1956 season until the Cardinals owner stepped in and put a stop to those negotiations. Stan Musial! But I digress…Colavito was dealt straight up for OF Harvey Kuenn, a trade that saw the reigning HR champ swapped for the reigning batting champ. Kuenn was actually coming off of a fairly solid season in Detroit, having hit .353/.402/.501 with 42 doubles and 9 HR. The batting average and doubles both led the AL in 1959, but that season represented the high water mark for Kuenn’s career. Prior to the ’59 season, Kuenn had just a .768 career OPS in 6+ seasons in the major leagues. After the 1959 season, he was even worse, putting up a paltry .729 OPS from 1960 until his retirement after the 1966 season. Say what you will about Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro and their use of “advanced statistics” like OPS and WAR, but they’d have never made the Colavito trade. Kuenn lasted just one season in Cleveland before Lane shipped him to San Francisco in exchange for Johnny Antonelli and Willie Kirkland.

In his four seasons in Detroit, Colavito continued to be productive but wasn’t nearly as happy or beloved as he was during his time in Cleveland. The Rock averaged 35 HR and 108 RBI with the Tigers, including his best season as a pro in 1961 when he hit .290/.402/.580 with 45 HR and 140 RBI. However, showing that people in Michigan were idiots even back in the 50’s and 60’s, Tigers fans groused about the trade and publicly preferred Kuenn to Colavito. Tigers beat writer Joe Falls was particularly hard on Colavito, as he famously created the Run Not Batted In (RNBI) stat for use specifically in case Colavito dared to strand a runner on base. Can you imagine Jordan Bastain or Paul Hoynes doing that to Nick Swisher in 2013? Wait, let me rephrase that; can you imagine Jordan Bastain doing that to Nick Swisher in 2013? Colavito’s relationship with the fans wasn’t much better; in May of 1961 the slugger went into the stands to confront a drunken Tigers fan (better known by the abbreviation of ‘a Tigers fan’) who had been accosting Colavito’s wife and father. You stay classy, Detroit. Meanwhile, in Colavito’s first game back in Cleveland after the deal, Indians fans hung Frank Lane in effigy to protest the trade.

Following the 1963 season, Colavito was dealt to Kansas City where he had another solid year, hitting .274/.366/.507 with 34 HR and 102 RBI for the Athletics. By then, “Trader” Lane was out of baseball and was serving as the GM for the Chicago Zephyrs of the fledgling NBA (he would return to baseball later on, but that’s another story). Gabe Paul was the GM of the Indians now, and was determined to right the wrong that was the terrible Rocky Colavito trade. Paul re-acquired Colavito from the Athletics in a complicated 3-team deal that included the Chicago White Sox in January of 1965. When the dust settled, the Indians sent John Romano, Tommie Agee and Tommy John to the Sox for Colavito and Cam Carreon. Agee promptly won the Rookie of the Year Award, a Gold Glove and was named to the AL All-Star team in 1966, and Tommy John of course went on to win 286 games in a uniform other than Cleveland’s, as well as have some fancy surgery named after him. But Colavito was home, and that was all that mattered to Indians fans at the time.

Rocky was 31 years old by the time he again donned the Indians uniform, and this time his jersey featured the #21 on the back. He had a solid season in 1965, hitting .287/.383/.468 with 26 HR and a league-leading 108 RBI. But after hitting just .238/.336/.432 in 1966, it was clear that Cleveland’s favorite player was on the downside of his career. He appeared in just 63 games in Cleveland in the 1967 season, hitting a career-worst .231/.317/.333 with only 8 HR. Only July 29 of that year, just prior to the trading deadline, Colavito was again traded away. This time he went to the White Sox in return for Jim King and a PTBNL. The PTBNL turned into Marv Staehle, and ironically the only team that gave up anything of real value when they traded for the great Rocky Colavito was the Indians themselves. Colavito closed out his career in 1968, appearing in 40 games with the Dodgers and 39 games with the Yankees. He hit 8 HR between the two leagues, and even won a game for the Yankees on the mound, throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings in his 2nd and final career pitching appearance.

All in all, Colavito appeared in 913 games as a Cleveland Indian. In those games, Colavito hit .267/.361/.495 with 190 HR and 574 RBI. He made the all-star team three times (1959, 1965, 1966) and finished in the top-5 of MVP voting in three times (1958, 1959, 1965). His 190 HR still rank 10th in team history. He helped spawn a book and sequel from noted Cleveland sports author Terry Pluto, who penned “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” in 1994 and followed it quickly with “Burying the Curse” in 1995. Colavito ended up wearing three different numbers as an Indian, starting off his career with #38 before switching to #6 and then finishing up with #21, but his best seasons came while donning the #6 jersey. Colavito was elected into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2006, and when Terry Pluto interviewed Colavito near the 50-year anniversary of the trade that sent him to Detroit, Colavito said, “I loved Cleveland and the Indians. I never wanted to leave.” He was one of the best players in baseball for much of a decade, one of the most popular players in club history, and a guy who was proud to call Cleveland “home.”